Third, communities and context matter. Organizations like ours should be partnering with communities and not doing work to communities. We will only be able to achieve stronger outcomes for students, and ensure these outcomes are sustainable over time, if we are really listening to and working with communities to ensure the work responds to their needs and contexts. We need to understand the factors that drive their long-term investment in and demand for this work to continue over time. Education nonprofits and district leaders come and go, but the community always remains.
LE: You’ve been an educator for a long time, and you have also supported the growth of thousands of educators in a variety of contexts. What have you learned about what educators want and need to be their best selves?
KO: Teaching is hard. I learned that first-hand as a middle school teacher in East Los Angeles, and I have re-learned that fact many times in my roles designing training and development for teachers. There isn't one answer to what it will take to improve instruction at scale. I have learned many hard lessons about things that don't work as the "silver bullet" for supporting and developing teachers.
Working at TNTP with a focus on teacher development during the release of The Mirage was an especially humbling experience. It required me to confront and reconcile my work with report findings which showed that almost all of the teacher development efforts districts are currently implementing don't work. I have learned that teachers can't do everything that is currently being asked of them really well, sustainably, and at scale, especially with the additional content knowledge and rigor that is required by Common Core-aligned standards. We have to find ways to make this work easier for them and not harder. The answer cannot be piling more stuff on a teacher's plate or to just recruit and select more "superstar" teachers who can somehow do it all.
Providing teachers with higher quality, more rigorous instructional materials and then aligning all of the training and support they receive to the materials they are expected to use is just the beginning of making teaching easier and more effective. That is one of the big reasons I was drawn to Leading Educators.
I also believe the teacher mindset work we do at Leading Educators is critical. I have seen teachers struggle--and I struggled as a new teacher--to put more rigorous content in front of students because of unconscious bias about what students are capable of doing. Teachers sometimes lower expectations for students over time, and there is a tendency to hold onto problematic beliefs about what teaching can and should look like. As a new teacher, I thought my role was to do everything possible to help my kids “get it”, and I was scared to let them struggle too much because they might fail. Of course, now I know that wrestling with content is part of learning.
I also believe we need to be thinking about other models for the teacher role, ways we can be better utilize technology and personalized learning, and ways we can restructure school and district support systems to more substantially change the way teaching and learning happen in schools. I’m excited about LE's ongoing work around enabling conditions and upcoming partnerships that will explore the intersections of content-based professional learning, technology and personalized learning.
LE: You have another important role in life as the mother to Elias and Abigail. As a parent, what’s top of mind for you when you think about the kind of education every child deserves?
KO: Having kids definitely gave me a new perspective on the education system. Every time I walk into a classroom now, I ask myself: "If this was Elias's or Abigail's classroom, would this be okay?". And, unfortunately, too often the answer to that question is "no", which breaks my heart and increases my urgency for the work we are doing.
When I was first looking for daycare and pre-K options for Elias, I chose to enroll him in a private Montessori-based program. I didn't know much about the Montessori approach at the time, but after doing several walk throughs of local daycare facilities and asking a lot of questions of the teachers and program leaders (that were likely way more detailed than they usually get from parents), I picked the Montessori-based program because it was the only place where I felt the school leader and teachers could clearly define what they meant by "focusing on the whole child". They could articulate a clear and detailed continuum of learning from the earliest developmental stages. They were aligned to some of the most important outcomes that I wanted for Elias which included that he learned to love learning, learned independence, and learned how to operate successfully in school as well as life.
After going through this process with Elias, the reality of the opportunity gap in education became so much more real to me as I recognized how privileged I was to be able to access and afford a daycare that aligned with what I most wanted for Elias's longer-term education. So many parents don't have that choice. I also began to see how different my vision of the education I wanted for my own kids was from the schools and classrooms we were often holding up as "exemplars" in the teacher training that I was helping to design and implement.
This experience led me to do two things. The first was to join the board of a newly formed organization called Montessori for All, which is an Austin-based, public charter management organization. They seek to open and lead free, high-performing, authentic Montessori schools that partner with families to help children in diverse communities reach their extraordinary potential intellectually, emotionally, socially, creatively, culturally, and physically, so that they can pursue lives full of meaning and joy.
The second is that I began on a journey to better align my work and to a vision for instruction and student outcomes that more closely reflects what I want for my own kids. To be clear, I don't think that the Montessori-approach is the only vision for what great instruction should look like. But I think there are elements of the approach, especially the clearer and more holistic definition for student outcomes, that all parents want for their kids and therefore that should be driving how we train and support teachers.
LE: We know you bring many other experiences and and interests with you in your daily life, so we’re going to close with some rapid questions. Are you ready?
LE: Describe yourself in a hashtag.
I had to phone a friend for this one. She recommended #introvert because I'm kind of an introvert. I am exhausted by small talk and large group facilitation, and I get a ton of energy from building deep relationships and having purposeful conversations. However, I also really enjoy and am motivated by spending time building, expanding, and deepening my network of friends and colleagues.
LE: If your life was a book, what would it be called?
KO: Cycling Your Way Through Zoom Calls: The Kelvey Oeser Journey. I have a desk bike, and my remote LE team members will likely see me rocking back and forth on a Zoom call soon.
LE: Where’s your favorite place in the world?
KO: The front deck of my house in Austin. We built it a couple of years ago, and I love going out there in the evenings to sit, listen to music, drink a glass of wine, talk with my family, read a book, say "hi" to the neighbors as they go on evening walks, watch the kids ride their bikes, and watch the sunset.
LE: Coffee or tea?
KO: Both, I am a caffeine addict, and I find drinking hot drinks comforting. I drink coffee all morning, and then I switch to hot tea if I need something relaxing and less caffeinated to drink in the afternoon or evening.
LE: What are three things you can’t live without?
KO: Do people count as a "thing”? If so, my family is definitely first on my list. Then, my dogs. And, finally would be a good book. Just don't ask me to pick which one.
LE: Most adventurous thing you’ve done in your life?
KO: I've never done anything too extreme in terms of adventures. My husband and I went ziplining in Costa Rica when we were on our honeymoon, which was pretty fun, extremely beautiful, and also a little scary. We're about to go back to Costa Rica for my birthday in March, and I'm planning to learn how to surf, so I will be able to add that to my adventure list.